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Organizational Octopuses: Exploring Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships in South Asia

Marie Stissing Jensen field trip

Marie Stissing Jensen, PhD student at Lund University and SASNET grantee, travels Sri Lanka and Nepal to better understand the ecosystem of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships.

They have been deemed vital for realizing the 2030 Agenda goals, due to their perceived ability to overcome ‘silo-thinking’ between sectors – but how and to what extent do they do this, and what exactly are their activities in the countries they operate in? 

In September, Marie Stissing Jensen was awarded the SASNET South Asia Travel Grant for Doctoral Students and now she has just returned home from fieldwork in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her project is a study of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships (MSPs) and their role as a central governance instrument guiding us through the transformation to a sustainable future. 

MSPs have been endorsed by the UN as a crucial part of the solution to implement the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, emphasizing their ability to spread knowledge as a key feature. The aim of Marie Stissing Jensen’s current fieldwork is to delve into the production and implementation of that knowledge, spotlighting water as a critical resource for sustainable development in two South Asian states: Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Marie Stissing Jensen field trip
Marie Stissing Jensen conducting fieldwork on a farm in Gonadika.

“From a development perspective, water is a challenge for both countries but in different ways. Both struggle with issues such as clean drinking water and sanitation, and with scarce water resources for vital irrigation systems to secure food. Both countries are also among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change", Marie Stissing Jensen explains.

While Sri Lanka is an island with a complex weather system of multiple monsoon seasons at different times in different areas, Nepal is a landlocked country an home of a large part of the ‘third pole’ – the Himalayas, which provide water to not only Nepal but also large parts of India and Bangladesh. 

The similarity in challenges and difference in contexts makes for some interesting case studies to illustrate the complexity of issue areas that MSPs are dealing with, says Marie Stissing Jensen. 

Her field trip started in Sri Lankan capital Colombo in October, where she collaborated with the Regional South Asia Office of the Global Water Partnership (GWP). Seeking to understand how knowledge moves from the local to regional and global level within MSPs, Stissing Jensen engaged in everyday operations at the office, visited sites of implementation, and interviewed staff as well as project participants.  

Arriving between monsoons, the hot and humid weather posed a challenge, and Marie Stissing Jensen faced some difficulties in the fieldwork as well. 

“Navigating a new organization where different interests don’t always align was challenging – this is a condition which applies to any organization, so it was not surprising but still challenging”, she says.

Sri Lankan capital Colombo
View of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.

Another hurdle has been getting interviewees to share their honest views and stories, even when that includes difficulties and sometimes failures. During her stay in Sri Lanka, Marie Stissing Jensen realized the importance of drinking tea, taking breaks together, and having informal conversations.

“Of course people want to share their successes, and I do not see that in any way as problematic. But I was interested in the everyday practices and struggles of the development practitioners, and to get to a deeper level of understanding. During breaks is when people start to open up. And that’s where you often gain some insights and new ideas, that would not otherwise have presented themselves", says Marie Stissing Jensen.

She emphazises the importance of building trust and relationships during fieldwork, and the need for the researcher to give some of oneself as well. According to Marie Stissing Jensen, the small talk and feedback during teatime also prove the importance of fieldwork.

Those kinds of interactions would not have been possible if I hosted interviews online. And I would not have had the same understanding of things if I hadn’t been there in person, she says.

However, Marie Stissing Jensen acknowledges that unofficial interviews can raise ethical concerns. 

“How much of what is said can I use in my research and how can I use it?”.

After a month of observations, 12 recorded interviews, and numerous informal meetings, Marie Stissing Jensen left Sri Lanka for Kathmandu in Nepal where she resided until mid-December. As she previously used to live and work in Nepal and is familiar with both the culture and language, she found it easier to navigate Nepalese society. 

“For example, I know that different last names indicate what caste a person belongs to. That makes me understand the power relations between people better”, she says.

View over Kathmandu in Nepal
Kathmandu in Nepal.

When in Nepal, Marie Stissing Jensen got more opportunities to visit the countryside than in Sri Lanka and halfway through the fieldtrip she also felt more relaxed about the interviews and confident enough to improvise rather than sticking to a set list of questions. 

The main goal of her fieldtrip was to build a contact network to expand upon and gain a better understanding of the ecosystem of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships. Initially planning to identify a single MSP project to focus her research on, Marie Stissing Jensen found it challenging as actors and projects within the MSP system are so intertwined. 
“They are like organizational octopuses”, she says. “Being in Sri Lanka and Nepal made me realize how little I knew before.”